Spotlight on the Main Characteristics of Autism

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Speech and Language Difficulties

One of the characteristics of autism is problems with speech and language. At the low-functioning end of the spectrum, a child may be nonverbal and hardly able to communicate. Those with high-functioning autism may have a good grasp of language but will often speak in an odd manner that sets them apart from their peers. Autism characteristics in speech include the following:

  • Delays in developing speech.
  • Echolalia where words or phrases are repeated over and over, not necessarily with any understanding.
  • A person may pick up on a phrase from a movie and use it frequently in conversation.
  • Formal, pedantic style of speech.
  • Unable to understand sarcasm and figures of speech.
  • Language is interpreted literally.
  • Flat monotonous tone while speaking.

Problems with Social Skills

Social impairment is one of the better known autism characteristics. It may appear that the person is locked inside a private world of their own. If they do make an effort to interact, it is often clumsy and poorly received by their peers. The lack of social skills can often be seen from infancy when a baby does not make good eye contact with his parents and does not interact during simple games like peek-a-boo.The following are characteristics of autism that are associated with social skills:

  • Difficulties in interacting with peers.
  • Lack of interest in social interaction.
  • Inability to read social cues.
  • Inability to read body language.
  • Inability to interpret facial expression.
  • Inappropriate behavior that may include physical touch.

Repetitive Behaviors

People with autism may exhibit a range of repetitive behaviors. These can range from spinning and rocking to obsessional interests in certain topics. The behavior patterns are such that they will be perceived as odd or extreme by the people around them and will generally cause them to be shunned socially. Autistic people are comfortable with routines, and if one is unexpectedly changed, it may result in an emotional meltdown and anger. Behavioral autism characteristics include the following:

  • Strict adherence to routines and ways of doing things.
  • Agitation and distress are common if a routine is changed or interfered with.
  • Preferences for certain foods and clothing types or colors.
  • Repeated hand flapping, spinning, rocking, or similar mannerisms.
  • A special interest that often involves computers or technology of some kind, means of transport such as trains and aircraft, and sciences such as astronomy.
  • A tendency to talk incessantly about a special interest.
  • An autistic person may have incredible knowledge about a special interest.

The characteristics of autism fall into three broad groups, but the individual outworking is always different. An autistic person may be stronger in some areas than others but will generally display the characteristics of all three groups. Lists of autism characteristics are often used when trying to ascertain where a person fits on the autism spectrum.


The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007

Characteristics Checklist in Autism - Perceptions & Reality by the Autism Foundation (now out of print), featured in Autism Victoria,